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Videophone: Always in the wings

If any product demonstrates the gap between what can be created and what people want, the videophone may be it.

©New York Times, published April 24, 2000


Ever since the telephone was invented, according to historians of technology, people have been talking about what seemed like the next step: seeing the person at the other end of the line. As far back as the early 1930s, engineers have shown that it can be done. Products have appeared on the market for 30 years. Yet the vast majority of households are still using regular telephones, conversing blindly without the benefit of screen or camera.

"It's been on the verge of happening for nearly a hundred years but hasn't yet," said Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University and the author of The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution.

Sheldon Hochheiser, AT&T's corporate historian, calls the videophone "the most famous failure in the history of the Bell system."

It was not for lack of trying. In 1931, AT&T tested a concept that was like two-way television. In the test, which was set up between two offices in New York City, a screen was available at each location, and people could see and hear themselves on either side.

The Depression and the excitement about television's broadcast capabilities got in the way of further development until the 1950s, when AT&T decided to try again. By 1964, it had a viable product to unveil: the PicturePhone, which was demonstrated to enthusiastic crowds at the New York World's Fair. "People seemed to think it was wonderful," Hochheiser said.

But when the PicturePhone came on the market in Pittsburgh and Chicago five years later, he said, very few people bought it. In 1972, AT&T pulled the plug.

Historians have attributed the flop to several factors, such as the phone's high cost and that it was useful only if the recipient of a call had one, too.

But one reason usually tops the list: "It turned out that it wasn't entirely clear that people wanted to be seen on a telephone," Hochheiser said.

AT&T tried one more time, in the early 1990s, with a product called the Videophone 2500, which also has been discontinued. And other companies have come out with similar products, many of which can be purchased. But Berge Ayvazian, chief executive of the Yankee Group, a technology consulting company, said he saw the real desire for such devices coming from corporations that want to use them for videoconferences.

Yet there are people who think the videophone someday will become a fixture in the home. Ayvazian said he could imagine a popular version of the videophone that would let online shoppers talk to sales representatives who could show them products. And Alan Marcus, a professor at Iowa State University and co-author of Technology in America: A Brief History, said the Internet's broadband capabilities coupled with the youngest generation's focus on visual material would kick off a new desire for communication with video.

"I think we are getting close to creating a demand for it," Marcus said. "And someday we'll think about the old days when we couldn't see each other while we were talking."

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